Jim VandeHei Talks Politico Pro

“We’re going to dig really deep… really cover what’s happening.”

Politico has just announced it will be launching a subscriber service, Politico Pro, next February. According to a press release, Politico Pro’s expected staff of forty journalists will provide “high-impact, high-velocity reporting on the politics of energy, technology and health care reform” for political and policy professionals. At what price? $2,495 for the first subscriber to a single vertical such as energy; and after that, $1,000 for each additional subscriber—to any vertical—from the same organization. CJR assistant editor Joel Meares spoke to Politico executive editor Jim VandeHei today about what Politico Pro will provide that Politico doesn’t, who they’re looking to hire, and what might be next for the dominant Beltway publication. This is an edited transcript of that conversation.

Was Politico Pro something you had in mind when you first started Politico?

It’s been knocking around the past year or so. The last six months is when we became really intensely interested in the idea and thought that it could be a big success. But it wasn’t always our intention. When we started Politico our focus was very much on an advertising-based product. The longer we’ve been in this market, the more familiar we’ve become with what readers need and want. And it became pretty abundantly clear to us that there was a real opportunity in the subscription model here in Washington, much like there was an opportunity for Politico in late 2006, early 2007. You look at the market and it gives the appearance of being oversaturated and over-served. In ’06 we thought that wasn’t the case. We actually thought that the market was underserved, that people here weren’t getting enough coverage of politics and governance, and they weren’t getting it quickly enough, or in a way that comported with how political junkies and political professionals were living their lives.

When we looked at the paid subscription market here in Washington we walked away with the sense that it’s a very similar situation. There are a lot of different companies that do different aspects of in-depth policy coverage, but very few of them do it in a way that we think comports with how political and policy professionals live their lives—they’re not getting the information in real time, they’re not getting it in quick bursts that comport with the hectic nature of their lives, and they’re not getting enough of the personality and the politics intertwined with policy so they can understand in a 360 degree way what’s happening in any given area at any given time.

Who are these political junkies that Politico Pro is for?

It’s a pretty broad market. It’s people who work on the Hill, work in the administration, lobbyists, think tanks, academics, learning institutions, and, maybe on the margins, hedge funds—people in New York trying to figure out what’s really happening in Washington so they can make wise business decisions. It’s a small group when you look at it as a mass media consumption market, but it’s a pretty large market when you look at it as a business proposition and whether or not you can crack in there and make money doing really aggressive, high-quality reporting.

How will Politico Pro differ from Politico?

It’s being set up as an entirely separate entity, with new staff from top to bottom, because we don’t want to do anything that would weaken our existing site. In fact, we’re hiring even more people for the existing site. So what people get now for free, they’re going to continue to get more and more of.

Think of Politico Pro as a Politico for the energy sector or Politico for the technology sector. We’re going to dig really deep into the committees that matter, the agencies that matter, the people in the political world outside of government, lobbyists, academics… really cover what’s happening. We’re going to give people an indication of what’s likely to happen next, who the players are, who matters, who’s up, who’s down, who’s getting along, who’s not getting along. It’s going to be exponentially more information tailored to what these people care about, what they do for a living, and how they live and breathe their professional life in a way you don’t get on the existing political site, which tends to focus on much broader issues such as Washington governance, its politics, Congress, the White House, and 2012.

What can we expect to find behind the Politico paywall?

What you’re going to find behind the paywall is really play-by-play, nitty-gritty coverage of the big energy debates, the big tech debates, the big health care debates—the type of stuff that you probably only care about if you are working on Capitol Hill on those specific issues, or working in the administration on those specific issues, or lobbying on those specific issues, or studying those specific issues. The idea is to give you everything you need and want, and to help cut through the clutter. In ’06, when Politico jumped in, I felt there was a need for more speed; a need to make sure that people were getting information in a timely manner. I feel now there’s a real burden on us to help people cut through all the clutter out there, to help simplify their lives, to help people decide, from out of all that’s out there, what pieces of information are new and what pieces of information are essential. If we can accomplish that and do it with real sophistication, with real smarts and real speed, we will be a success.

Are there other subscription products on which you’ve modeled Politico Pro?

There are a lot of subscription products out here that are pretty familiar in Washington—CQ, Environment & Energy Daily, which is one we’ve hired people away from for our energy section. I got my start in journalism in the mid-’90s at Inside Washington Publishers, which is a newsletter company, and this is exactly what they do. My first job was at New Fuels Report covering the alternative fuels industry.

Those publications are still around and still thriving. They don’t have three or four million unique visitors each month and they might have as few as five hundred to a thousand subscribers. But they’re subscribers who pay a pretty hefty subscription fee and who have really come to rely on those publications. There’s not a single publication out there that we’re emulating, because we think that the market actually needs something new and something pretty different. But you can look at what’s out there and draw some lessons about what won’t work and what might work.

You have health care, energy, and technology sections of the Politico website already. Will the sections you have on the current site remain in place when Politico Pro launches?

I think in some shape in form they will. They will give people at least a taste of some of our coverage, hopefully to entice them into paying for exponentially more coverage. There will be cutback coverage available. And in having more reporters—we’re going to end up with seven or eight reporters covering energy, for instance—we hope to write even more stories that are available to our larger audience. Any story about energy that we think resonates with people outside of the energy sector will be put on the main site and available to all of our readers.

You have already hired a bunch of journalists from other publications—Dan Berman of Environment & Energy Daily and Kim Hart from The Washington Post, for example. What kind of journalists are you looking for to form the staff of Politico Pro?

Journalists that are very much like the ones we hire now for Politico. We’re looking for people who have expertise, who have a passion for journalism, who have a passion for the issues that they’re covering. But also who have a unique skill set—they’re fast, they’re smart, they’re well-sourced. And that’s the most important part: Can we tell people stuff they just don’t know? That’s always the test of good journalism to me. John Bresnahan, who’s one of our congressional reporters and a longtime friend of mine, says, “Just tell me something I don’t know.” If you do that, you’re a good journalist.

We spent a lot of time trying to find people who are heads and shoulders above others in those individual sectors. Darren Samuelsohn, whom we hired away from Environment & Energy Daily to be our lead writer on energy, is widely seen in the energy world as sort of the Mike Allen of energy coverage. He has an insatiable desire to break news, to tell people stuff they don’t know, to write big pieces about what’s happening in this world, but also do quick hits, like ‘Hey, here’s something you didn’t know about the chairman’s race,’ or ‘Here’s something you didn’t know about the global warming debate.’ And that’s the model: finding people who really have the political metabolism and who have real expertise that they can bring to bear on these issues.

You started hiring early.

We started hiring people about three months ago, give or take, and it’s certainly picked up in the last month and will intensify even more between now and the end of the year. We’re looking for reporters who have expertise. But at the same time we’re looking for reporters who have the right metabolism, the right mindset, who have the right moves. I’m a big believer that if someone’s a great journalist and has all the right intangibles, you can put them in anywhere and they will be a success. There’s definitely going to be a couple of generalists we will bring in who we think can learn the material quickly enough and can write in a sophisticated understandable way.

The press release talks about “high-impact” and “high-velocity” reporting. Can you explain what you mean by that?

Hopefully, it’s what’s come to define Politico. It’s having reporters moving quick, moving with the news, and telling people something first. That’s very important. If you can be the first to tell someone what’s going to happen on a piece of legislation, or a spat that’s happening between Pelosi and Hoyer, or some dynamic that’s animating a given policy or political debate, that’s a good thing. Let’s face it, we live in an era of rapidity where things move with a real velocity, and I think technology affords us the ability to keep up with the pace of politics and to keep up with the demands of political and policy professionals. We’re looking to always be part of that.

Will Politico Pro be available on tablets and smart phones?

Yes. Our hope is that we will have iPad apps for all of these individual verticals in the spring.

You’ve said you want Politico to be the dominant outlet covering Washington. Do you think you’re there?

I think it’s certainly our long-term goal. Stepping back for a minute, I think there’s a great story taking place in Washington where you have a lot of big institutions with real household names—Don Graham at The Washington Post, Rupert Murdoch with The Wall Street Journal, Robert Allbritton with Politico, Bloomberg—all vying to be the dominant voice in Washington. I don’t know that there will be one dominant voice, but I don’t know that there will be many, many dominant voices. Our goal is to position Politico to be that dominant voice in covering Washington governance.

To do that, it takes money. We are a for-profit company; we’re not the Red Cross. We’re trying to figure out how you take great journalism and marry it to a great business model so to be able to become a robust news operation that hopefully, in the not-too-distant future, has a much bigger investigative team, can send people overseas to report on a war—to do the things that a robust Washington operation should do. It takes money. And we’re doing exceptionally well on advertising. It’s pretty well known that in the issue/advocacy market we’re a dominant number one. We’re gratified by that but we’d also like to create new revenue streams, and the new revenue stream that we’re targeting now is a subscription revenue stream. If we’re successful with this on top of the success we’ve had with advertising, then suddenly you have a business model that can really sustain a very, very robust journalism that goes above and beyond what we’re already doing.

So there are plans to expand Politico’s investigative team?

We do a fair amount of investigative reporting now. But it’s certainly something I would love to do a lot more of in the future. I do think there’s nothing more important we do as journalists than hold government accountable. And I think over time, as we become a profitable venture—and we are a profitable venture—we have almost a social obligation to do more and more of that. Thankfully there are a lot of people filling the void in investigative journalism in the not-for-profit realm. Whether it’s ProPublica or the Center for Public Integrity, there are resources being thrown at investigative reporting. I want for-profit companies to be throwing even more and more resources at investigative reporting. I certainly want Politico to do it.

Are you surprised by how much interest Politico attracts from outside the beltway?

I’m surprised by how quickly we’ve become as big as we are today. We always had big ambitions for Politico but things have certainly moved quickly. We are still a publication that is really obsessed with what’s happening in Washington. Our business model and our reporting model is very much built on being absolutely essential to political professionals, to government officials; they need to read us to do their job. If we do that, then we’re a success as a publication.

What’s really gratifying is that it turns out that there’s millions of people who want to have a look in. They want to be able to see behind the curtain and see how Washington really works and how politics is really practiced. We think those numbers can grow and will grow because a lot of people care a lot about what’s happening in Washington.

Does the presence of that audience change who you compete with?

Not at all. Our focus has not changed from day one to this conversation I am having with you right now. That is we had to be essential to political professionals, to government officials…

Day-to-day we spend a lot of time thinking, “What is Bloomberg doing? What is CQ Roll Call doing? What is David Bradley up to over at National Journal? What are they doing at The Washington Post?” Those are our competitors and we’re always trying to figure out what they’re up to, where we have a market advantage, where can we grow as a company. We don’t spend a lot of time ever thinking what’s on the world news and how does that effect us or what’s happening on the front page of USA Today and how that affects Politico. Those are mass audience outlets. We’re not a mass audience—it turns out there’s a big audience that wants in on the type of stuff that we’re covering, but we’re still very much about Washington.

Speaking of competitors, have you been keeping an eye on Bloomberg’s push into Washington, Bloomberg Government?

I think everybody in Washington is keeping an eye on what Bloomberg’s doing in Washington. They’re spending a lot of money, they’re hiring a lot of people, they’re getting more deeply involved in policy areas, particularly on the data end of things. I don’t see them as a direct competitor to what we’re about to launch; I see them as complimentary in some ways. Bloomberg is really going to be a dominant player in the data business, interpreting government actions and how it affects Wall Street and how it affects investors. I see us very much as being in the human intelligence business, helping people understand the decisions, what’s going to happen next, and how it all fits together. I think Bloomberg is a much bigger threat to National Journal and CQ because they’re going after the data business, and, from what I’ve seen they’re doing it in a much more comprehensive way.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.